Why Alain de Botton annoys me

At a recent Sunday morning meeting we showed Alain de Botton’s TED talk where he argues for an Atheism 2.0, which most of our members quickly identified as the Humanist project.

De Botton has a new article up on Huffington Post arguing for “5 Religious Concepts That Atheists Can Use.” The concepts are familiar to anyone who has seen the TED talk and are innocuous enough: education, mind & body, community, art & museums, and pilgrimages. At our meeting we agreed that building a community and taking trips to natural wonders like the Burgess Shale and local museums are quite worthy pursuits.

What gets me about de Botton though is not just his ignorance of the British Humanist Association’s numerous activities in these areas, it’s his passive aggressive assaults on the success of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. He refers to the New Atheists as “fanatical” and “fundamentalist” while making no effort to understand their position.

Of Dr Myers’ best writings are those that identify the core target of this movement, which ironically is the idea disparaged by de Botton in his very first sentence: that of truth. De Botton writes “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’.” This very sentiment offends me deeply, not just as a scientist, but as a humanist. Religions make many truth claims about morality and the universe.

If the claims of the theistic religions are true, then our actions and lives have a very different meaning than what secular humanism proposes. In the former case, a magic super-being created the universe for its own amusement and in many traditions will punish or reward your behaviour depending on your behaviour while alive. In the latter case, this life is all we have and morality is derived from a desire to make it the best of all possible lives for ourselves and our future generations.

This is to say nothing of the implications for Big Bang Cosmology and the entire pursuit of science were the (literally) miraculous claims of religions to be true. Naturalistic science rests on the assumption that nature is consistent, that is the laws of nature are constant. This assumption gets tossed by the wayside in most religious claims where a supernatural entity is able to change the laws of nature to suit their personal ambition.

So rather than working within the growing humanist and atheist movements, de Botton has chosen to chastise those of us who value the truth and community. It seems like he simply wants to stir controversy to sell books. His thesis on the face is seems to be a fairly tame and reasonable contribution to the dialogue within our community. Instead his ego must take centre stage.

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